The Woman in Black (DVD/Blu-Ray) – Dir. James Watkins. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, Ciarán Hinds.
A remote Gothic mansion and the malevolent spirit of a crazy woman who spent her tormented life locked up inside: why can’t it ever be a practical two-bedroom bungalow haunted by a nice stable accountant?
In his first major post-Potter role, The Woman in Black has Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer sent to a remote English village to tidy up the affairs of a recently deceased widow. The village has lately been coping with the mysterious deaths of many of its children, and its residents desperately try everything in their power to stop Kipps from becoming involved — everything, that is, short of actually explaining to him why he shouldn’t. Kipps, for his part, asks remarkably few questions even after the fifth or sixth cryptic warning.
At the heart of the mystery is a ghost story: one that sticks rigidly and without surprises to the most basic formula, from its tragic back-story to its warnings from superstitious villagers.
The first thing any viewer of The Woman in Black must get past is the idea of little Harry Potter playing a single father to a four-year-old child. This is not easy. The opening shot of Radcliffe’s character shows him standing in front of a mirror with a razor blade held vertically over his jugular. The implication is that he’s considering killing himself, but it’s just as plausible that he’s never used a razor before and doesn’t know how to hold one. He spends the rest of the film growing stubble on his face, seemingly to prove he can.
Even with a setting in the early 20th century, when decent folk were expected to have four kids by the age of fifteen and die graciously of tuberculosis by 25, the scrawny 20-year-old Radcliffe is not a great choice for the role. But he’s what we’ve got, and all we can do is accept it while making the requisite number of “Yer a lawyer, Harry!” jokes.
Radcliffe isn’t the reason The Woman in Black is a bad movie. Those reasons would be its generic story and adherence to the LOUD NOISES school of horror, in which the protagonist is followed around by a twitchy orchestra and a lot of very soft-footed people who invade his personal space whenever he turns his back. Most of the film features Kipps wandering through darkened corridors with a candle (not a wand!) in his hand as things jump out at him from behind the furnishings.
A lazy shocker ending that ties together absolutely nothing stomps out the film’s last remaining hopes.
Rated PG-13 for poor child supervision.
2.5 out of 5
The Secret World of Arrietty (DVD/Blu-Ray) – Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
It’s widely known that the retirement of Rick Moranis left the world with a critical shortage of stories about shrunken people. Where else can we turn but to Japan?
Co-written by Studio Ghibli heavyweight Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) and directed by first-timer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, The Secret World of Arrietty is an animated adaptation of Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers: the story of a family of four-inch-high people (known to themselves as “borrowers”) living in secret beneath the floorboards of a human family’s home. When 14-year-old borrower Arrietty is spotted by the sickly human boy who just moved in and finds him to be not all that bad, she has to consider whether making her first friend is worth the danger he represents to her family.
Two English dubs (American and British) are available for the film in addition to the original Japanese. This review is based on the Japanese version.
The Secret World of Arrietty shows most of the Ghibli trademarks; it’s beautiful, whimsical, slow-paced, and driven by a gorgeous soundtrack.
This hand-drawn film’s greatest asset is its attention to detail. The carefully designed intricacies of each of the borrowers’ miniature gadgets, the realistic depiction of surface tension in water droplets the size of a character’s fist, the subtle shifts in the speed of time when changing between the perspectives of big and little people: all of it adds up to a world that feels fully real and ready to be explored. The joys and dangers of being tiny are shown more convincingly than in any film based on the concept yet made.
But those details often seem to exist in a vacuum set aside from the story. Elements like the network of passageways through the house, a sewing pin Arrietty picks up and wields as a sword, and a meddlesome crow are given much attention early on in the film but are never brought back for any thematic or plot purpose.
The characters are stock: something not a problem for Studio Ghibli, which has made its mark sweeping viewers along on adventures across fantastic worlds seen though the eyes of earnest but simplistic protagonists. However, the supporting structures that made this formula work in past films — the complex relationships, grey-shaded moral conflicts, and lasting sense of wonder — are somewhat lacking here. The characters are not two-dimensional, but they are missing the depth needed to fill the space of such a quiet and sparsely populated film.
The Secret World of Arrietty has an undeniable magic, but it falls short of the standard that made this studio famous.
Rated G for small problems.
3.5 out of 5